A Beloved Cartoon About The Horrors Of Survival
I (re)watched The Secret of NIMH for the first time as an adult last night, facing up to the aura of fear that surrounded the film from my hazy childhood memories. I found it to be a relentlessly dark and intense film where the protagonists face near-constant mortal peril, where creatures get stabbed and crushed and bleed to death on camera, where the protagonists’ allies are self-centered and insecure and assert themselves in ways that at least slow things down and at most nearly destroy everything.
The plot follows the struggles of “Mrs. Jonathan Brisby”, a widowed mother mouse who barely gets to have any independent identity of her own, as she struggles to save her children from certain death in the teeth of a plow. They live in a cinder block in a field on a farm, and it’s time for them to pack up and move since the farmer is about to plow the field and destroy everything, but they can’t go anywhere since one of her kids is deathly ill and breathing chilly air will kill him for sure. I was happy to see that the animators managed to make the mother mouse look feminine without falling to the usual lows of giving the animal inexplicable high heels or a backbreaking set of breasts, and I’m totally on board with a selfless life of devoted motherhood for those who choose it, but it still felt weird to have the creatures in their world refer to her as “Mrs. Jonathan Brisby” and to have her answer to that call without asserting her own first name, completely content to sit in her utterly derivative existence.
The titular “Secret of NIMH” is that the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) had been experimenting with giving super-intelligence to rodents through injecting them with golden serums, and at one point the scientists succeeded and a handful of rats and mice achieved immortality and next-level sentience and escaped into the night. Jonathan Brisby was one of these mice, and some feats of heroism and daring on his part were why the group of rodents managed to escape the facility at all. Brisby then settled down in a field and took a standard-issue mouse as his wife, a mouse-woman who despite having an animal-normal IQ is nevertheless able to speak and make complex plans for the future.
At the time of the story Mrs. Brisby had four children of different ages, which implies a lot of tragic loss of young life for the family of mice. According to a cursory scan of some Google results, mice can get pregnant 5-10 times per year and have an average litter size of 6-8 pups, giving a range of 30-80 children produced per year, but the Brisbys had only managed to keep four alive out of all the children they’d ever had. This implies a terribly harsh world or extremely poor parenting or both - or maybe it suggests that Mr. Brisby’s super-intelligence had given him extraordinary insights into family planning techniques and/or physical self-control, letting him consciously select exactly how many viable sperms he wanted to spray into his wife every night.
Mrs. Brisby’s quest to save her family takes her to the colony of super-intelligent rats, who had set up a technologically-advanced society in a rose bush. Their extreme IQs had allowed their little civilization to not only master the use of electricity but also given them access to some sort of Crystal Amulet Technology. This Crystal Amulet Technology is mostly used to let the elder magic rat Nicodemus snoop around and monitor significant events as they unfold, but eventually it’s also used to save everything just when it seems that all is lost.
The rats agree to help Mrs. Brisby because her husband was awesome, but there’s one small problem: there’s a visibly-evil super-rat at the colony named Jenner who lusts for power, and when the rats break out a pulley device to move the Brisby home he sabotages it so that everything comes crashing down on Nicodemus which kills the elder magic rat instantly. Jenner then stands on a rock and declares victory before a good rat named Jeremy engages him in a sword fight while everyone else just stands around and watches. Eventually Jenner is stabbed to death and everyone feels a lot better about the situation, but then the Brisby house starts sinking into the mud (it’s raining) and the Crystal Amulet Technology activates and pulls the house out to much rejoicing.
The house is moved to a secure location (still in the plowable field??) while the rats pack up and leave - their colony was about to be gassed by the evil human scientists, but even before that the rats wanted to relocate since siphoning power from the farmer family weighed very heavily on their collective conscience. At no point did the extreme renewable energy of the Crystal Amulet Technology enter the conversation, but I can only trust that their superior intellects judged such power to be immoral to harness except when an old guy watches people without them knowing about it.
The sick Brisby kid is healed 3 weeks ahead of schedule somehow (Crystal Power?), and one of the auxiliary characters gets a happy ending - there’s an immature oaf crow named Jeremy who does very little except get tangled in string and attract the attention of the farmer family cat Dragon (who Mrs. Brisby heroically poisons). The fact that he repeatedly winds up “accidentally” tied up with rope in public suggests a latent and unacknowledged rope kink, and at the end of the film a lady-oaf-bird crashes directly into him and they laugh and tie each other up for a minute or two, pointing towards a mutually fulfilling future of binding and being bound before one of them inevitably gets killed by a hungry predator.
Mrs. Brisby briefly made mutually-flirty eye contact with the good rat Jeremy, suggesting the possibility of a sexually fulfilling future for her as well, and maybe even a new identity beyond “Mrs. Brisby”, but Jeremy skips town with the other rats and Mrs. Brisby is left to a chaste and devoted life of permanent motherhood.
Overall the film depicts a horrible and violent struggle for survival, and the final magic-assisted victory is just a temporary guarantee that the status quo can go on for a little while longer. It is a Disney-adjacent film that depicts and induces a deep kind of misery. Its value isn’t as a monument to the enduring power of the human(?) spirit, or even of the strength of virtuous motherhood - it’s value for me came from seeing that at the end of the depicted events I, like the characters the film depicts, had become slightly stronger just because I had survived.